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photo of lawyer Kristen Wittman and cover of her book Death becomes us

Living with law and art: Manitoba lawyer publishes moving new poetry collection

October 7, 2021 — 

A partner at Winnipeg law firm Taylor McCaffrey LLP, Robson Hall alum and corporate and commercial lawyer Kristen Wittman [LLB/1995] is more than meets the eye. This fall, independent literary publishing house Turnstone Press releases her second poetry collection Death Becomes Us, in which Wittman demonstrates her creative literary abilities to connect readers with the shared human experiences of love, loss and grief.

Published following personal loss, Wittman captures a journey through a vibrant life shared with a loved one, diagnosis of terminal illness and inevitable death. Not ending there by any means, the journey continues with the process of moving through grief by welcoming memories, making painful little adjustments (even as mundane as updating the loved one’s Starbuck’s account), and the cold practicality of dealing with estate matters. While shared from the author’s unique perspective, the subject matter is extremely relatable to anyone who has likewise loved and lost.

Powerful imagery paints a solid landscape of local spaces including parts of Winnipeg, surrounding prairie, and cottage country. Like hidden gems, Wittman scatters nods to other Canadian literary icons throughout the collection including Sinclair Ross and Robert Kroetsch, while examining her own daring to likewise write poetry (“The poets have said what there is to say / so who am I to think / I can put pen to paper and pickle / thoughts in briny ink.”).

Wittman’s connection to the legal world emerges near the end when she effortlessly plays with the language of law in pieces bluntly titled “Advanced health care directive,” “Judicial interpretation,” “Legal Matters,” and “Final bequest.”

Full of heart, life and passion, the collection is cathartic, facing the hardest thing in the world for any person to do, and emerges as a work full of strength and grace.

Wittman’s first poetry collection, Stone Boat, was also published by Turnstone Press.

*****

Wondering how a busy partner at a law firm can still immerse themselves in a passion to such a level as to produce a finely-honed published work, Robson Hall reached out to our alum, who was most happy to turn her thoughts to poetry after a long, hard day at the office.

When did you start writing poetry and what compelled you to do so? 

I have been writing poetry since I can remember – I wrote a poem when I was very small – maybe five – and my mother, bless her, typed it out and put it on a piece of paper so I could draw a picture to accompany it. It was called “Draw me a boat”. If I tried very hard, I might be able to remember it.  A simple ditty. What was much more complex was having someone else (in that case my mother) read it, and embrace it, and want to be a part of it.  I read poems all the time, I am occasionally moved to tears by the words of other poets. To be able to write something that touches someone else, that permits them to enter into a private, protected space, with no judgment, that is what compels me. There was no looking back after “Draw me a boat”…

What was your path to study law?

Are you a “Simpsons” fan? There’s a moment when the babysitter’s boyfriend, Jimbo Jones, drops to his knees and cries to the sky “I’m disillusioned. I’m going to law school!!!” It wasn’t quite like that, but the study of English with a view to become a teacher or prof was not for me, and I learned that in my second year at U of M while attempting a double-honours in English and Poli-Sci. First year law school seemed a breeze after that choice. I had heard from many (my mother – there she is again! – being one) that a law degree would provide me with as many choices in life as I wanted. After two years of Philosopher Kings and literary theory, I was ready. 

What was your law school experience at Robson Hall like and to what extent was poetry a part of it? 

I wrote what I believe (a hubris!) to be a most amazing essay for the elective “Law and Literature” in third year that analyzed Robert Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer and obiter dicta. I think I confused the hell out of everyone. The poem “Judicial Interpretations” contains a poem that I wrote during first year Property Law, and read aloud at Beer and Skits. I understand Beer and Skits is no longer, and I understand why, but it wasn’t all bad. Some of it managed to hold up to the best of the term “louche”. I look back very fondly on those years as a time when I came to realize that the creativity I found in writing could be exercised by writing for law, not just poetry and prose. 

How do you achieve space for an artistic outlet like writing when you’re a busy lawyer?

I happened to find a DVD with an interview Wayne (Tefs) gave in the early 2000s, where he called all poets “cranky”. That made me laugh, mostly because that’s probably a fairly apt description. I carve out time by being cranky – by being determined, regardless of who I am with or what I am doing, to crankily preserve time for myself. To persevere. It’s interesting how similar those two words are.

“Law, particularly private practice, will absorb you if you let it. But if you get cranky with it, and set barriers, limits, determined spaces, you can persevere. It’s not easy. I don’t want anyone to think that it is easy.”

I am occasionally filled with resentment at the time it takes to be a good lawyer. But I want to be a good lawyer, so that’s on me. And from what I understand, all poets (and writers and artists and…) find it difficult to find time to do the thing they love, and have passion for, because life intervenes.  The billable hour demands attention, and leaves little room for creativity beyond the creativity required of law (of which there is a lot, in the end). There are many days when, at the end of the day, I ask myself why is it so important to me to write creatively, when I spend my day writing creatively within the law? I don’t have an answer for that, but I know I need to, so I find the time, because I need it. 

What can you advise current law students attending Robson Hall about pursuing their artistic passions while trying to forge legal careers?

Ah, the perennial question for law students. Will the practice consume us? Yes, if you let it. Work hard, keep your head down, ride through it. The first five years are hell. But fun, too – you learn so much in those first five years. And then, and then… if you are able to make it through, and many are, you discover the other side, where you can control your hours, you can be paid (well) for giving advice, you are important to your clients, they need you. And, with determination and discipline (and a whole lot of organizational skills – outlook tools, anyone?) you can carve the time you want for the things you want. When I’m not cranky, I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to be a lawyer in private practice, genuinely helping my clients, and at the same time being able to pursue my own interests, having financial independence, having the freedom to do what I want. In fairness, I love writing, and I’ve now published a grand total of two books of poetry. Law takes up a lot of time – don’t expect too much. But recognize that it will be a great career, and you don’t need to “give up your day job” to do the things you truly love.

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